"WebTV for Dreamcast" Awareness Thread

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wtv-411
shadow
Posts: 11

"WebTV for Dreamcast" Awareness Thread

Post#1 » Thu Jun 10, 2021 12:06 pm

Hello people. I come here in an effort to spread awareness of the "WebTV for Dreamcast" software in hopes that at least people will realize that efforts have been made recently to document it along with its service and other WebTV-related topics, as it actually has quite a bit to it in terms of how it functions. Not sure if it counts as an online "game," but this is the Online section so I feel it's appropriate to post this here. I imagine most of you are asking, "What is WebTV for Dreamcast?", and in extension, "What is a WebTV?" I'll answer that right now.

To most people's dismay (and mine too), it's not a video streaming service from the 90s. What it is however is both a series of products and a service that launched in 1996 in the U.S., and about 1-2 years later in Japan, that aimed to bring the Internet to the average Joe, originally by designing set-top boxes that would be manufactured by licensed WebTV partners that'd only require a telephone line and a monthly subscription to a specialized WebTV service to connect to the Internet. Not only would it let the average person connect to the general Internet, but it also had its own proprietary version of the Internet users could explore, offering its own services such as discussion groups, e-mail, news, search, and chatrooms, not much different from classic AOL on desktop computers. This service also even utilized its own set of HTML tags for its own pages to make use of WebTV-specific rendering and features. While it didn't really make much of an impact especially considering that computers were starting to get cheaper, and WebTV had its own issues of compatibility with the general Internet, it eventually just remained a mainstay with senior citizens at least in the U.S. until September 2013 of all things (which by that point it was already renamed to MSN TV). It's time in Japan was much shorter, however, having its service end in March of 2002. While it was active in Japan, though, it got a release on the Dreamcast in 1999 with the official name "Microsoft WebTV Connection Kit", which was essentially the WebTV software pressed onto a GD-ROM. It was mainly available through mail order (both snail and e-mail), and while it possibly didn't offer anything too different from what the dedicated WebTV hardware had, it's still an interesting piece of software seeing as like the dedicated hardware, it utilized its own fully fledged protocols to deliver proprietary service content and Internet content to end users, and it was ahead of its time, making it something worth learning about technically.

Problem with that, though, not much information about the service or even the product's technology has survived or came out at all. This is especially an issue with snapshots of the proprietary service pages and the protocols used to power WebTV. Before 2019, no such attempts were made to coherently document it, and while WebTV's own hacking scene was actually hard at work to make sense of the service and its protocols and learned quite a bit about it, doing some digging reveals they were not the kind to consider publicly documenting stuff like that and had a thing for keeping it under the public eye, whether it be for selfish reasons or fear of legal action/misuse of exploits, not to mention most "hackers" didn't even dig deep into learning about the service on a technical level, making it that much harder to rely on them for information. Whatever the case may be, even after the service had long been shut down, they don't seem to be keen on documenting what they've learned over the years themselves and either keep it stashed, or send over tiny bits and pieces of information to their friends to publish with the expectation people will eat it up. One example that comes to mind for me is a "server emulator" released three years ago by notorious WebTV "hacker" MattMan69, which is essentially a small Perl server someone else wrote that barely supports WebTV for Dreamcast and only has a mock home page and web browsing services set up, the latter only being powered by an external server said hacker operates, expecting people to build their own entire WebTV service with it when A, the codebase is rusty and almost two decades old by now, B, no other information on the protocol the server supports (WTVP) is available for reference, and C, that'd take an extremely long time especially if emulating the old service infrastructure isn't an option. Proper preservation of any WebTV content hasn't been their forte either, with the official (yes, official) WebTV Plus version of the PC game Doom being "preserved" in a custom firmware build MattMan69 maintains and on his own fully fledged WebTV server he currently keeps private, with the game being hacked to plaster in his "HackTV" branding all over the splash screens. There's also a customized image of the WebTV for Dreamcast software he offers that essentially... adds a custom home page and small hacks to connect to the aforementioned unpolished "server emulator". Point is, these people, while very few are willing to contribute more crucial information and content now on a small level, are still very hesitant with publicizing their WebTV knowledge, even if it isn't necessarily a giant legal issue, and remain in their closeted hacking scene mindset where they only trust their scene friends with the crux of the WebTV information. This is a shame, especially since there is talk that there is a person from the scene that knows the service in and out, choosing to stay hidden under the shadows and not contribute what they've learned publicly.

Good news is, there have been attempts to fill in the gaps in terms of WebTV information that would otherwise be lost. First off, a dedicated WebTV wiki launched a few months ago doing its best to properly preserve WebTV content and document previously obscure information about the WebTV service and its protocols, with it actively seeking for those who might have critical information that's otherwise undocumented. Second, new information has been uncovered about the Dreamcast version of WebTV in particular recently (which I updated with information originally only on my wiki, BTW) , including a previously unknown comic (manga?) included with the registration postcards used to request the discs. While most new information uncovered isn't specific to the one in Japan, these are all a good start to getting a better understanding of WebTV in general and eventually, the Japan/Dreamcast side of things. Who knows, someone might be able to make a proper server for WebTV some day, even if it'd be useless with the modern internet. :lol:

In the meantime, spread the word to people you think might be interested in this effort. If you're up to reverse engineering the Dreamcast WebTV disc, go all in with that. If you know someone who might know a thing or two about the WebTV software or service, Dreamcast or otherwise, reach out to them! Hell, manual scans of the Dreamcast version or any other materials pertaining to Dreamcast WebTV would be valuable, doesn't matter to me (should've clarified this earlier lol). WebTV in the end is a niche product that only satisfied a niche audience with some information on it that's not 100% verified floating on the internet, and while I might've not been part of that original audience or someone who thinks WebTV was flawless, I do think it's worth uncovering as much as we can learn about it, both on the East and West coast side of things, for this otherwise endangered technology.
Last edited by wtv-411 on Thu Jun 10, 2021 5:39 pm, edited 4 times in total.

slayer2k8
rebel
Posts: 22

Re: "WebTV for Dreamcast" Awareness Thread

Post#2 » Thu Jun 10, 2021 1:43 pm

I’m not sure what the goal is here do you want to be actually be able to use the Dreamcast WebTV discs?

The wiki you linked is basically a slightly redone copy of the SEGA retro page while i know a lot of the information on that site is either wrong or stolen from other places surely it would be best to cite the sources on the wiki.

Do you actually own any of the Dreamcast discs or are you more interested in WebTV in general?

To be perfectly honest you seem to be upset about the ‘hackers’ simply because they won’t give you access. To be fair i have no knowledge about the preservation of the infrastructure but you seem to be happy to want to others reverse engineer the software for you.

wtv-411
shadow
Posts: 11

Re: "WebTV for Dreamcast" Awareness Thread

Post#3 » Thu Jun 10, 2021 2:09 pm

I'm more interested in WebTV as a whole, learning how the services worked and what went into everything to make it possible. I will admit the wiki is not 100% my information, but I don't try to pass it off as if it is and I do try to give proper credit where due (for images, they're in the file description). I don't intend to portray myself as the WebTV messiah that can't get anything wrong and this is more or less a hobby for me when I get enough free time. If there's anything I get wrong with the information that you can confirm on, feel free to correct me. By the way, most of the recent information from the WebTV Dreamcast page on Sega Retro was originally only on my wiki for a while, and I simply added it in myself. ;)

My issue isn't with hackers giving me exclusive access to anything, and if they simply just did that, that wouldn't exactly make me happy or accomplish my ultimate goal, which is to not only preserve information and content but also document it for others to understand and make WebTV information liberated. It's more that as someone who's eager to learn more about the technical side of things in regards to WebTV, seeing that those "hackers" have basically all technical information on the service, enough to boast about having their own full WebTV server, yet don't even consider or acknowledge that having that information public would be a good idea rubs me the wrong way. It's not even their IP if I'm being honest. I've reached out to one of the few that actually know their stuff about WebTV about potentially documenting the protocols back when their WebTV server was public (they only had contact open through email on that private server). They straight up skipped that question. I also ask people to spread the word or consider doing something about it themselves because as it stands, those currently interested in WebTV and have a presence on the internet aren't exactly people willing to jump into reverse engineering, myself included, or are just not very interested in the technical side of WebTV. If I could reverse engineer things myself or get the holy grail of WebTV staff contacts, I would use that to my advantage almost immediately. Also don't forget that WebTV was not something many people cared about or even knew existed, so I feel as if spreading the word and convincing people to at least consider doing something if they want to is the best option for now.

By the way, yes, I do indeed have original copies of the WebTV Dreamcast discs. Wouldn't say I exactly want to use them, though. :p

slayer2k8
rebel
Posts: 22

Re: "WebTV for Dreamcast" Awareness Thread

Post#4 » Thu Jun 10, 2021 5:29 pm

Again, i only own the discs i can honestly say i never used them.

About SEGA Retro while a massive site which has a lot of knowledge a lot of information is added without crediting those who own/document their items/work. I perhaps naively just assumed that wiki was a cut & paste from SEGA Retro.

I think if i'm remembering correctly that it was quite expensive to use (Dreamcast WebTV) i have no idea about the computer side. I suspect that with the Dreamcast being an internet terminal that was what Microsoft saw in the system.

No doubt with their involvement with SEGA with WinCE i expect that WebTV was something they were keen to have on the system given the projected sales figures.

With regards to those who have managed to get the software running i think you eluded that Microsoft potentially might take umbrage with their actions especially if they were to distribute it. I have no idea how they deal with such actions but i can imagine legal action would be an option.

While it won't immediately be possible at some point i could scan/provide photos of the WebTV paperwork that came with my system.

wtv-411
shadow
Posts: 11

Re: "WebTV for Dreamcast" Awareness Thread

Post#5 » Thu Jun 10, 2021 6:03 pm

slayer2k8 wrote:With regards to those who have managed to get the software running i think you eluded that Microsoft potentially might take umbrage with their actions especially if they were to distribute it. I have no idea how they deal with such actions but i can imagine legal action would be an option.


What I was trying to get at with the original post is that that's the reason all the scene people use to not share any more information concerning the service itself, even if it's as non-incriminating as simple protocol information or HTML/images from the WebTV service pages. When I asked them about it, I never even suggested it had to be from internal documents or anything confidential. They just seem to dance around those kind of questions. Granted, some of the service content has been publicly archived, but the amount of HTML service pages archived right now is underwhelming and poorly organized, and the current site archiving service images does it in a way that's very messy and unorganized. Not to mention those HTML rips don't account for the server-side logic required to make them, well, work.

Only one of the scene people I've gotten in contact with were actually pretty lax with what WebTV materials they shared and allowed me to host elsewhere, and that was mostly firmware ROMs for the dedicated hardware and tools they made to mess with the proprietary WebTV formats, the former which I can see people getting concerned about MS taking legal action over. Regardless of what content they're concerned over, I personally think Microsoft stopped caring about WebTV so much that legal issues are the least of our concern right now. Aside from them leaving the U.S. service up all the way into 2013 with next to no public acknowledgement, from my observations they stopped caring about their WebTV product as a whole once the MSNTV 2 released, which was essentially a Windows CE box designed for use with the MSN TV service. That was the last piece of WebTV hardware to be released before Microsoft stopped distributing hardware in 2010.

slayer2k8 wrote:While it won't immediately be possible at some point i could scan/provide photos of the WebTV paperwork that came with my system.


Awesome sauce! Feel free to upload them when you get the chance. It'd be at least one more puzzle piece to the incomplete WebTV puzzle.

wtv-411
shadow
Posts: 11

Re: "WebTV for Dreamcast" Awareness Thread

Post#6 » Thu Jun 10, 2021 6:22 pm

By the way, if anyone can find a source on the image from the Sega Retro page below, that'd be wonderful. I doubt it's really fabricated but at the same time the "SEGA-E3" username at the bottom throws me off, and I'd just like to know as I don't think I even have enough time to research that specific image deep enough (Google reverse image search gives me nothing useful BTW).

Image

RoMagnusLarsson
noob
Posts: 1

Re: "WebTV for Dreamcast" Awareness Thread

Post#7 » Thu Jun 10, 2021 7:17 pm

A translation project first ! then it maybe connects !

wtv-411
shadow
Posts: 11

Re: "WebTV for Dreamcast" Awareness Thread

Post#8 » Thu Jun 10, 2021 7:31 pm

RoMagnusLarsson wrote:A translation project first ! then it maybe connects !


..Elaborate. Also should go without saying that a translation project for something designed to use a proprietary service, still needs the proprietary service regardless of what language the software is in now.

slayer2k8
rebel
Posts: 22

Re: "WebTV for Dreamcast" Awareness Thread

Post#9 » Thu Jun 10, 2021 8:44 pm

That image is probably what the username suggests. Likely SEGA was demonstrating the functionally at E3 with someone back in Japan.

Btw the service cost 2,000 yen for fifteen hours access with a five yen-per-minute charge after the fifteen hours had been used up. The Dreamcast service started on the 23rd April '99 i dig around in my archive to see when it finished.

The 'comic' is just the flyer included with early Dreamcast's to send off to receive the WebTV disc. It was also distributed at TGS Spring '99.

wtv-411
shadow
Posts: 11

Re: "WebTV for Dreamcast" Awareness Thread

Post#10 » Thu Jun 10, 2021 9:02 pm

slayer2k8 wrote:That image is probably what the username suggests. Likely SEGA was demonstrating the functionally at E3 with someone back in Japan.

Btw the service cost 2,000 yen for fifteen hours access with a five yen-per-minute charge after the fifteen hours had been used up. The Dreamcast service started on the 23rd April '99 i dig around in my archive to see when it finished.

The 'comic' is just the flyer included with early Dreamcast's to send off to receive the WebTV disc. It was also distributed at TGS Spring '99.


Honestly, yeah a flyer is a much better way to describe "Luck'n Luck WebTV". Too short to really be a comic and not full of content to consider it as a manga lol.

I think according to the Japanese WebTV site in 2002, passing the discontinuation page through Google Translate, the service apparently ended at the end of March 2002. Don't quote me on that, though. Also 2000 yen for WebTV service at the time doesn't sound too shabby. That's around $18 after putting the yen price into inflation.

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